Don’t take on massive debt for a graduate degree in creative writing. Seek a program that will support you through grants, fellowships, and/or teaching assistantships.
Generally speaking, while getting into a well-known program is very competitive, once in, the work is, to a great degree, self-directed. Your focus will be on the demanding labor of writing. There are many programs out there (thirty times as many as in the late 1970s, by one count). While this offers you choice, it also makes it harder to discern quality. Be cautious. Too many programs are no more than low-overhead cash cows for institutions.
There are traditional residential programs, as well as low-residency programs in which much of the work is done through correspondence and you travel to the campus perhaps twice a year for a stay ranging from one to several weeks. There are also programs that are completely online.
In most programs you must choose to concentrate either in poetry or in fiction. But a few programs offer mixed genre, and a growing number offer a concentration in creative nonfiction.
As to which schools to consider, there’s no easy answer. Consult with the creative writers here at Carleton, check out the resources listed below, find out where living writers whose work you feel an affinity for teach, and check out which, if any, creative writing programs these writers attended. (You can find out on book jackets, in the author bios of the Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry series, as well as online author and university websites.) The well-known programs are likely to have stronger writers, but there are gems at the less well-known programs as well.
Find out about the character of the programs you may be interested in. Different programs value and emphasize different kinds of writing. For example, Brown tends toward experimental, the University of Virginia toward the traditional.
One distinguishing factor of most M.F.A. programs is that the average age of the students is older—and sometimes considerably older—than that of other graduate programs. The reasons for this are various, but you should know that it is somewhat unusual for a young writer to go straight from undergraduate college into a graduate program in writing. Indeed, we frequently urge even our best writing students to take a couple of years in which to develop their writing before applying to a program.